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Judge orders Huntsville to release video of police shooting of mentally ill Army veteran

Crystal Ragland was shot and killed by Huntsville police on May 30, 2019. (Ashley Remkus/TNS)

A federal judge this week ordered Huntsville to release video of a police shooting, following a request from AL.com, and the city posted the video on Friday morning.

Crystal Ragland, a 32-year-old Army veteran, was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder when police went to her apartment in west Huntsville in May of 2019.

Instead of following police orders to put her hands up, Ragland reached for what later turned out to be a fake pistol in her pocket and appeared to grasp its handle, U.S. District Judge Abdul K. Kallon wrote in a ruling that dismissed the family’s lawsuit over the shooting.

Huntsville livestreamed the bodycam footage this morning at 10. The presentation, including police bodycam footage, can be found here. Caution: Parts of the video are graphic.

AL.com asked that the videos be released to the public because they were exhibits in the lawsuit. Huntsville opposed making the videos public.

In his order to release the videos, Judge Kallon wrote of a nationwide reckoning with police violence.

“Particularly relevant to this case, African Americans and those experiencing mental health crises are victims of police violence at disproportionately high rates,” Judge Kallon wrote. “Because of this violence, community members, both nationally and here in Alabama, have organized to demand transparency and accountability in how law enforcement officers police their communities.”

The shooting happened on the morning of May 30, 2019. Officers Brett Collum and Jonathan Henderson were investigating a 911 call from a manager at Stadium Apartments who told police Ragland had been threatening neighbors, pointing what police later learned was a fake gun through her windows.

In its video presentation, police showed body camera footage from the two officers. The officers met with the property manager, who gave the officers Ragland’s name and said she had pointed the gun at him as well. He also said Ragland was a veteran who suffered from chronic PTSD and was unstable.

As the two officers approached her ground floor apartment, with guns drawn, one officer entered a breezeway to knock on her door while another officer covered the sliding glass door at the front of Ragland’s apartment.

Henderson knocked.

“Hey Crystal, Huntsville police, can we talk to you real quick?” Henderson said.

A few seconds later, Collum saw Ragland start to emerge through the sliding glass doors.

“Let me see your hands,” Collum told her. “Get your hands up in the air.”

“I don’t got no weapons,” Ragland said.

“Step out, step out for me,” Collum said.

“Why you pointing your weapon at me?” Ragland asked.

At that point, Ragland had not raised her hands.

“Get your hands up!” Collum yelled. “Get your f****** hands up! Get your hands up! Put your hands up!

“Shoot my f****** a**,” Ragland yelled.

“Hands up! Show us your other hand!” Collum ordered.

Ragland then reached with her right hand as if to remove the gun from her pants pocket and officers fired.

Ragland instantly fell. Police placed her in handcuffs. They called for a medical assistance. Huntsville’s presentation then includes a close-up of the realistic replica of a .45 caliber handgun.

Huntsville in its presentation notes the shooting was cleared by internal review and later ruled justifed.

Ragland’s sister, Brandie Robinson, earlier this year filed the lawsuit in federal court, alleging excessive force and wrongful death. The lawsuit also accused the city of condoning excessive force, failing to properly train police to deal with people who are mentally ill, and failing to hold officers accountable.

Ragland’s family asked the judge to grant AL.com’s request, noting the videos were part of the record of the lawsuit and arguing that the public has a right of access to court proceedings.

“Free speech is limited where there is a lack of information on matters of public interest and public concern,” attorneys for the family wrote in court records. “The ability of the public to be informed to matters such as the ‘policing’ of a veteran with a service-related mental health disability is a cornerstone of the exercise of the duties inherent to citizenship.”

The city argued that the videos are “privileged” investigative materials under the Alabama Open Records Act. Gregory C. Burgess, attorney for the city, wrote that releasing the videos could put the officers in danger.

“…the release of these videos as proposed by AL.com could compromise the safety of the defendant officers and foreclose them from serving (or continuing to serve) in any undercover capacity now or in the future,” Burgess wrote to the judge in response to AL.com’s request.

In his order this week requiring Huntsville to release the video, Judge Kallon wrote: “Such transparency is crucial to maintaining trust in our criminal justice system and in our democratic society, especially because police use-of-force incidents are historically underreported or miscategorized by police departments.”

Ragland’s death at times became a rallying cry for demonstrators in Huntsville in 2020.

Judge Kallon wrote that public access to bodycam vidoes, even when there is not a constitutional violation, is necessary to foster dialogue about whether police reforms were needed. In response to AL.com’s request, he also wrote: “The court agrees that releasing the bodycam footage will allow the public to gain a better understanding of the officers’ conduct, which is especially significant given the broader context in both Huntsville and the country at large.”

Ragland’s family, in regard to releasing the video, contended there are wider issues regarding lack of transparency specific to Huntsville police.

“Furthermore, there are unique issues in this case as it pertains to the lack of accountability and transparency within the City of Huntsville Police Department and citizen concerns about how their taxpayer monies are being spent.”

Huntsville this year also fought the release of the bodycam video of a shooting by former officer William Ben Darby, who a Madison County jury convicted of murder in the shooting of suicidal man. City leaders, including the police chief and the mayor, backed Darby, saying the shooting was within policy but declined to show the public the footage. The Madison County judge in that case overruled the city and released the video after it was used in a public trial.

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